Teachers want reading scores to improve

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Learning to read and write as a young student is critical, and some Whitefish elementary teachers are concerned about student success in later grades if early benchmarks aren’t met.

The Whitefish School Board recently held a work session to take a further dive into last year’s district-wide student test results, bringing in teachers, administrators and parents to look at the data.

During the work session, Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt walked those in attendance through the scores before letting representatives from grades kindergarten through fifth talk about their own interpretations of the data.

The work session was spurred by requests earlier to see student data presented by cohort rather than on a year-to-year basis. If presented by cohort, data can show how the same class is doing as they move up in different grade levels.

The district looks at STAR and Smarter Balance Assessments tests, both of which are computer-adaptive tests meant to inform teaching, as well as Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills testing.

Every group increased the percentage of students hitting benchmark scores in DIBELS testing. In kindergarten, about 64% of students meet the intensive category, which includes the lowest scores, but teacher Lisa Olsen said she doesn’t worry about those results past helping her set up Title I teaching groups.

In the first grade cohort, the percentage of kids in the intensive category dropped from 51% to 25% in the kindergarten to first grade transition.

However, that still leaves 44% of students performing at intensive or strategic levels, first grade teacher Marni Thomas noted. The first grade year is critical for learning to read, she added, and failure then can lead to failure in later grades.

“First grade is a little unique, I would argue, that it’s probably your most important grade for reading. That is where we’re teaching the basics ... and the research literally shows that kids that get off to a poor start in reading rarely catch up. Studies have shown that poor first grade reading continues to be a poor reader, and those children who don’t get help remain poor readers throughout school,” she said.

Thomas added that she and the other first grade teachers have been using an effective reading group method to address different levels of literacy, where students are placed in groups that fit their reading levels.

Students that exceed their current reading group can move into a harder group, and vice versa, she said.

Viewing the Smarter Balanced Reading Assessment year-after-year shows an 8% increase in fifth grade students meeting proficient or advanced in the test between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years. That fifth grade cohort, however, increased the number of students hitting proficient or advanced by 22%.

The fourth grade cohort increased their scores by 4%, the seventh graders by 8% and the eighth graders by 2%. The sixth grade cohort, however, dropped 6% in those tests.

All but the sixth grade cohort exceed the statewide test increases viewed in the same manner.

The fifth grade cohort also showed a 17% drop in students scoring in the novice category on the test since last year.

Viewed by cohort, the STAR Reading results show increases of 10 and 4% for the fourth and seventh grade cohorts compared to last year, but drops of 5 and 12% for the sixth and eighth graders.

The percent of students in the urgent intervention category increased in the third, sixth and seventh grade cohorts, with the biggest increase coming in the third grade cohort at 7%.

In second grade, teacher Lisa Bloom pointed to reading fluency as well, noting an increase in urgent and intervention student numbers.

The goal post shifts pretty quickly for second grade students, she explained, who are expected to up their reading speed from 42 words-per-minute at the start of the year to 76 WPM by the middle of the year and 96 WPM at the end of the year.

“We’re not making gains in the reading fluency scores with the intervention and urgent intervention kids,” she said. “Forty percent of our students are performing below grade level all year long, and we can’t seem to hit that mark,” she said.

And in fourth grade, teacher Shelly Snipes pointed to writing as a weakness, mostly based on the tough standards the SBAC test expects.

“They aren’t really writing well enough when they come to us to do what they’re asked. It’s three different essays on different topics, and they’re asked to write several paragraphs of a narrative to a story, and kids really struggle with it,” she said. “I think the writing piece is what we’re missing, building from kindergarten all the way up.”

In positives, teachers were happy to see cohorts and individual grade levels meeting or exceeding statewide scores and high proficiency levels in math.

Scores dropped for students in Smarter Balanced Assessment math tests in the fifth, sixth and eighth grade cohorts, by percentages of 5, 12 and 14%, but rose for fourth and seventh graders.

In the eighth grade cohort, the number of students scoring in the novice category rose from 18% to 32%.

Still, the scores for by-cohort meet or exceed the state-wide averages.

In STAR Math, only the fourth grade cohort showed improvement at 7% more students meeting proficient or advanced, while the rest fell, but still saw 70% or more hitting those desirable levels.

And in the high school level, while not a by-cohort measure, scores rose in every category in the ACT test for the 2018-19 school year.

The Smarter Balanced Assessments are computer adaptive tests in English language arts, literacy and math that are aligned to Montana Common Core standards.

The STAR Assessments, which are also short, computer adaptive tests to provide teachers with learning data, provide another perspective. Along with the SBAC and STAR tests, the district also uses Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills testing.

The DIBELS tests are short fluency measures used to monitor literacy and reading skills, and due to changes in what is tested and how, aren’t as consistent of measures as the other testing methods, the district notes.

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